Alex: I’ve always considered myself a fairly skilled eater. I have a healthy appetite, and I usually find myself finishing off an extra half a plate at dinner when the food is particularly good. However, I have never before been subject to the full force of a master chef’s kitchen until last Saturday when we showed up at 29 South; Scotty Schwartz’s incredible restaurant in Fernandina Beach. This was a birthday surprise for me; Heather had found the only way to top her masterful surprise party of last year.
The building itself is an adorable two story nestled comfortably at the corner of Ash and 3rd Street in downtown Fernandina Beach. The marina is a few streets away, enough to feel the coastline without having to smell the dockside. It was a wonderful day outside and the patio called for us, so we found our table and waited for the fun to begin. We’d arrived a bit early; so we took the time to browse the menu to get an idea of what was to come. I found Florida Brewery’s Key West Southernmost Wheat, and ordered it purely because they brew in Melbourne, my hometown. I was completely satisfied when it arrived; it was reminiscent of other citrus beers but with a smooth mouth feel and a fuller flavor from the key lime.
Our server came by and told us that Scotty was running a bit late, but he had put in our first few appetizers. I knew that day was going to be a good day as soon as I woke up, and the lobster corndog and fried green tomatoes only served to bolster that belief. The corndog was exactly as delicious as it sounds, served with homemade vodka and horseradish spiked ketchup. After a few bites of the corndog, I wasn’t sure if anything could top such decadence. That’s when I took a bit out of the fried green tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese, with a bit of balsamic vinegar and red pepper jelly. I have never been so happy to be so very, very wrong.
Heather: I wish lobster corndogs were a part of my every day meals. The mix of childhood nostalgia of a corndog, plus the grown up pleasure of lobster was exquisite. I’d highly recommend ordering this while visiting 29 South. Fried green tomatoes aren’t on my normal must order list, but the goat cheese inside these was absolutely heavenly and I’ve contemplated trying to recreate the recipe at home (but who am I kidding, I’d rather go back and have it skillfully prepared).
Alex: Once we’d finished inhaling the appetizers, Chef Scotty came by to set out the game plan. There were to be nine courses, showcasing the best things on his menu. This would not be the first time I would tell myself that this was the best birthday dinner ever. Soon after, our next dish arrived. Pan-seared scallops on a bed of cauliflower puree, with some light greens, dried sultanas, and marcona almonds. I knew as soon as he announced it that it was going to be one of our favorite dishes, but I was still blown away by the combination of flavors. Heather and I both love scallops but I have never imagined having pureed cauliflower on anything but a baby’s spoon. The smooth and rich texture of the cauliflower and scallops were married perfectly to the dried fruit and nuts and we both had a moment of silence as the last scallop was devoured.
As Scotty came by to explain the next dish, we were both still feeling pretty good. As he talked about what was sitting on our table, we both had to pick our jaws up. Wagyu and foie gras blended together, topped with truffle brie, Benton’s country ham, and a Conner farm egg sunny side up. It was so beautiful sitting there all neatly arranged and I knew that trying to eat it was going to be messy. At first bite, the burger was just the right combination of rich and savory. I normally don’t like an egg on my burger because the yolk can overpower the rest of the flavors, but with the stronger flavors of foie gras and truffle brie it all came together to be the tastiest slider I’ve ever eaten. It also came with a side of hand-cut fries, which were well seasoned and incredibly delicious. We had to abstain after a few bites, knowing that we had a good deal of food left to go!
The next plate that arrived was the first “full sized” dish, and also where I realized that this was some serious business. I’ve had bad mussels before, in bland sauces or juice that tasted like two day old Long John Silvers. These were quite the opposite. I was plucking my way through the mussels when I found my first tomato chunk in the mix, and took a bite out of it not really expecting anything but tomato. It was incredible, he’d smoked them and then cooked them in the sauce and tasted nothing like anything I’d ever had before. Soon enough I had a conundrum though, with the mussels were devoured, a whole bowl of delicious tomato marinière remained. Lacking a spoon, and unwilling to invest precious stomach room with bread, I am not ashamed to admit that I slurped up the rest of that soupy sauce with a straw.
Heather: It was at this course that I realized what a master at flavor mixing Chef Schwartz is. His sauces are unexpected, creative, and will leave your tastebuds dancing a tango of delight.
Alex: We had a brief reprieve before the next course so we had a chance to take a look around. The place was getting busy, and we were both glad we’d found such a nice table outside. Right around the corner was the “backyard” of this house cum restaurant; transformed into a beautiful working garden. It’s great to see the delicious things in the ground before you eat them, but it’s even more incredible to see someone out from the kitchens grabbing a fresh head of cabbage to bring back inside. It’s a tribute to Chef Scotty’s dedication to cooking with the best ingredients he can; the best way to be confident about your ingredients is to make them yourself.
By the time we was done ogling the garden, a pair of salads had materialized on our table. They were about as different as salads could be. The grilled romaine salad was smoky and savory, tossed with bleu cheese, toasted walnuts, and house-cured bacon. On the other hand, the smoked Georgia brook trout salad was lighter; with endives, pear and dill pollen. Having a grilled salad was an entirely new experience though, and it really tied all the flavors of that salad together. At this point in the meal, the lighter flavors of the smoked fish and pear definitely won us over.
After the salads came another example of Chef Schwartz’s inventive mind, a Berkshire pork chop brined in sweet tea, resting on a bed of macaroni cheese and blackberry ginger preserves. It was pleasantly, sinfully delicious, and it is one of the first dishes I will have to order again if I see it on the menu to give it the full justice of an empty stomach. I grew up with blackberry bushes behind my house, and every summer we were prickled and stained from picking, so it is only appropriate that one of the tastiest dishes have such a special memory.
What came next had no such basis in fond childhood memories. I didn’t grow up with any sort of home-fried chicken. The only kind I’d ever had came out of a bucket. Chef Scotty’s fried chicken, dripping with St. Augustine honey on a bed of mashed potatoes puts all of those to shame, and rightfully so. As with the pork chop, it was so painful to be unable to eat more than a few bites between the two of us, but I must say that the Naked Bee honey mixed in with the potatoes was absolutely astounding. The next time I’ve got mashed potatoes and no gravy, I’m going straight to the honey jar just to capture a modicum of that brilliant flavor.
We’d made it to the home stretch. Only one more dish remained before the desserts, and then sweet oblivion in the form of a food coma. The last dish that Scotty brought us was the Southern Style Spring Pea Carbonara, and it also was the one dish I could not properly appreciate. The heavy cream sauce, more of Benton’s incredible country ham, and panko fried duck egg were simply too much for our already beyond satiated stomachs. We each took a few small bites, but after seven courses a white sauce pasta dish was too much to handle. However, if I were to have chosen one dish to take back to feast on in the comfort of my own home, this would have been the one.
All good things must come to an end, and what an amazing end this would come to. Dessert consisted of not one, nor two, but three different plates! In front of me lay the Coffee and Donuts, a mug filled with glazed donut bread pudding topped with mocha ice cream and butterscotch drizzle. In front of Heather, the Chocolate Soufflé disaster, a fallen flourless chocolate cake with butter pecan ice cream. And to the right, in the neutral zone, a lemon tart with almond crust with a light glaze of lavender honey. I could have died right then and there and been a completely happy man, and once I bit in to the bread pudding I knew that I must have, because no dessert could truly taste this good. Heather’s personal favorite was the Lemon Tart, which was the perfect light dessert to end such a massive meal. The “Disaster” was anything but, rich flourless cake and incredibly delicious ice-cream, a simple and very filling option.
We waved our napkins in surrender. The end was nigh. We’d eaten our way through some of the most innovative and delectable dishes from the most skilled chef we knew. We fell in love with Chef Scotty’s cooking at The Legend Series (and then again at Slow Down), and this most amazing offering only went to show how even more impressive he can be when he isn’t working out of a parking garage. I can’t thank him enough for giving me one of the most wonderful birthday dinners in my life. I also can’t thank Heather, my wife-to-be, for all the planning it took to get me somewhere without me suspecting a thing. This truly was, to date, one of the most wonderful evenings I have ever had.
29 South 3rd Street
Fernandina Beach, Florida